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Saturday, July 16, 2016

How It Works

I live in a crazy old farmhouse full of books but, when I was a kid, I lived in a crazy old farmhouse full of books.  This book belonged to my dad. He had ridden in cars like the one on the cover when he was a kid. He was 40 when I was born. Mom was 5 years younger than he and I was the youngest child.  Like many women, she stopped having kids at 35. 

 35 kids is more than enough for any family.

The book contains everything mechanical that a kid of any century ought to know.  Here is a diagram of how music is made in a piano.  It is a complex coordinated activity of whippen flanges, cantilevers, dampeners and felted hammers. From it I learned that rubber bands could be stretched from one's front teeth and played pizzicato.  However, the astute autodidact soon found higher notes wanted more stretching than rubber bands could manage.  

They would snap and whack me in the chops. This, rather like picking up a cat by the wrong end, taught generations of kids something they could learn in no other way. We learned to make music within the limits of our materials, and grant upon ourselves the kindly wish that old misfortunes be reversed.  We were curious, happy children.

We were customarily sent outside after breakfast and called in to supper several years later.  As a result,  most of our activities would necessarily fall in the category of  outdoor pursuits. The book helped there too.  It diagrammed the dynamics of kite ascension.

We learned, in the words of another kid (Benjamin Franklin), "a kite flies highest against the wind", and aimed tens of thousands of them eastward.  String being unreliable in those days and kites being constructed of available materials --bamboo, newspaper and snot-- caused a century of the things to snap free and drift aloft to raise the elevation of the high Sierras.

This forced auto makers to add a lower gear to transmissions so people could safely traverse the grades and all us kids were ordered indoors to watch television, which by then was mostly bad horror films --you know, the ones with blood dripping from their titles-- then get up at like a million o'clock in the morning to go to church. There, we sat and debulliated --relieved only by the dream that we might grow up to own cool cars.




27 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Tom, hello! Glad to see you transmitting. I gather it will be a couple months before the house is fixed --hope it goes quickly.

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  2. Dear Geo., that was a very satisfying childhood, I think - "We were customarily sent outside after breakfast and called in to supper several years later." - and that's how a childhood should be. Now the book was followed by a parents' manual: technical, of course, because it addresses the "helicopter parents", always flying above their kids and watching them (them? One instead of 35).
    By the way: I love your VW-bus - would like to have such a one to drive camping (honestly, I'm thinking of it)

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    1. Dear Brigitta, times have indeed changed for parents and children --so competitive now! And yes, I like our '71 bus too. It was my work-car for over 30 years. It moved 4 kids (not 35!) to universities in other cities. Now, in semi retirement, it transports garden supplies and lumber for our home projects. Like my body, I'll keep it as long as I can find parts for it.

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  3. Didn't we have great childhoods? Being left to our own devices we learned to imagine and create. But I cannot remember ever boiling over in church.

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    1. Yes we did, Emma. Mid-20th century was a fine time to be a kid. Maybe we didn't boil over in church --I just like to use that word sometimes-- but we got shushed for percolating.

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  4. And that is how kid hood worked. That is a priceless book and what a source of information for we old kids, still.

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    1. It was fun, Tom, to rubberneck and get the principles of things. Adults were usually kind enough to explain things too.

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  5. Your childhood. My childhood. The childhood of lots of us dinosaurs.
    And it was good.

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    1. There is, in your comment, a lovely poem. Brava! And thanks.

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  6. You've ignited many childhood memories, Geo - with the humor and insight that only you can provide.

    As an ex-professional pianist (and self-proclaimed music "expert") I admittedly have absolutely no clue how music is made in a piano...

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    1. It's just a harp in a house, Jon. What's really important is people skilled enough to make it sing in there --like you.

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  7. I have three vols. of Segalat's "How Things Work" I picked up at Powell's in Portland in the early '70's, set me back nearly 100 bucks back then, and now I hesitate to even open them for fear of cracking the spine, etc.
    If I had to be stranded on the proverbial desert island, these might be the books I'd take.
    Not on topic, but that's typical of me.
    Cheers,
    Mike

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    1. Totally ON topic, Mike. I realize I should have sought some info on the volume in this essay --all the pub. info pages are missing-- but I Googled the spine info --Author, Archibald Williams; Nelson Pub.--and got an excellent essay by John Lienhard at (copy and paste) http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2127.htm
      Book is from 1911, and Lienhard thought the spine illustration looked like a ufo but it's really an Edison phonograph. The volumes you bought sound like they're in much better shape and I thoroughly understand your attachment to them.

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  8. Thanks for the jokes... 35 kids, that didn't leave you much inheritance, did it.

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    1. Ah, 35 was an estimate based on the noise we made. A head count yielded a far lower number.

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  9. Your post reminded me of a set of books that my grandfather bought for my mother and her siblings - this would have been in the 1930's - The World Book of Knowledge, I think they are called. Not an encyclopedia but each volume a compilation of stories, science, language lesson, crafts and other things to interest children. I used to read them when we visited Grandad; I even learned how to knit from them. My mother wanted to declutter, so guess who got them ... I really ought to re-visit them.

    Thanks for a very witty post, by the way ... and I feel your pain, sort of, with the failed elastic experiment. My brother used to make that toy, you know, the one with a loop of fine cord threaded through a large button, then twist the cord back and forth by pulling on the ends of the loop ... the button spins and hums, and the cord winds and unwinds very fast, just right for catching hair and snarling it beyond repair ... not his own hair, mind you ... anyway - PAINFUL! - like the snapped elastic :) but at least you did that to yourself, I guess!

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    1. O Jenny, there were so many wonderful books of practical knowledge waiting for our childhoods. Sometimes I suspect we were among the last generations to understand the innards of our possessions. And yes, I too made string and button flywheels and learned much about the entangling properties of reciprocal momentum. School was ok but going home and learning really was fun!

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  10. I loved this post, Geo. In the mid-twentieth century, we didn't buy things, we made things. We were left to our own to think, create, and have fun. We did not live on a schedule (except for school) and our parents expected us to behave or else. Even though life has changed so much, kids are still kids and I see what my grandchildren and their friends create on their own and I am amazed. Much of it has to do with the technology that there is today, but in many ways, so was ours back in the 50's and 60's. It just seemed so much more simple.

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    1. Thanks, Arleen. I'm inclined to agree that kids are going to be creative and resourceful even in this time of strict digital game rules and rigid schedules --just as we were happy to color outside the lines. Of course the results aren't in on current childhood pursuits. Can't be yet. I'm just glad nobody sells lawn darts any more.

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  11. Oh how I enjoyed reading this, Geo...how you made me laugh!!
    Everything you say is true though...our childhoods were so different from the way they are today, weren't they?!
    All those practical skills have given way to i.pads and i.phones...sad...really sad...:/

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    1. True Ygraine, times have changed --or perhaps only reversed a while. The practical skills will always be in demand, even if only as novelties to help future technically savvy adults explore the real world. So glad you enjoyed the essay!

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  12. A kite flies highest against the wind - I love this ridiculous much!! Deep in multitudinous projects here and it's unBritishly hot (grammar is melted) but I did sleep earlier and dream of travelling to California. I've never been to the real place so I don't know how accurate it was. One day I hope to compare :-)

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    1. Lisa, Every dream of California is accurate. California is itself the stuff of dreams.

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    2. That is marvellous to know :-)

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  13. I've probably said this a time (or three) before, but THIS is now my favorite post written by you. It's well-written, clever, funny, nostalgic, and oh-so true. The freedom to explore, create, and learn things on our own as kids was invaluable to our development into adults who treasure those same things. Now, we're having fun trying to instill these same qualities in our grandchildren.

    I'm pretty sure you probably made rubber band-shooting guns as a kid, but did you ever use spring clothespins to make a nifty gadget to fire wooden matches? Literally... if done properly, the match would light as you fired it.

    Super post, dude.

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    1. Thanks, Susan! I never tried the clothespin lighted match launcher --your childhood technical achievements must have been quite advanced compared to mine. I am tempted to try it. Dudes like nifty gadgets!

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